by Erich Weingartner
Pak Kim Li is 36, married, and father of a 5-year-old son. He also fathered a daughter, who would be 12 years old today, had she not died of a nutrition-related infection at age 3 — for lack of appropriate antibiotics during the “arduous march” of 1997, the low point in what the outside world refers to as “The Great North Korean Famine”.
Pak’s father is a retired university professor, formerly head of the music department at Kim Il Sung University. Pak himself did not exhibit much musical talent, so his parents arranged for him to be married to one of his father’s star students. She teaches piano at the Children’s Palace in Pyongyang.
Pak’s uncle was a diplomat, which afforded the young nephew an exceptional opportunity to spend a year in Indonesia when he was ten years old. Attending a private school for the Indonesian elite, he learned some of the official Bahasa, but preferred to speak Javanese with his school friends. He also took an introductory English course and generally discovered a love and aptitude for languages. With his uncle working in the commercial section of the embassy, he decided at an early age that he wanted to become an international businessman.
Back in Pyongyang, he was persuaded to pursue a study of languages. When he graduated from high school, he volunteered for military service like all his classmates, but did not receive a notice of conscription. Instead, he was told that he had been chosen to pursue accelerated language studies. He found this exceedingly embarrassing, especially in his relationship with girls, who admired the young recruits, but considered him a coward.
As the son of a prominent member of the Korean Worker’s Party, Pak was an obedient Young Pioneer and an enthusiastic member of the League of Socialist Working Youth, eventually himself gaining Party membership. He attended self-criticism sessions and political education classes religiously.
His academic achievements led to an Asian languages professorship at Pyongyang University of Foreign Studies, but he continued to study English privately. Following the death of Kim Il Sung, rumors began to circulate that the 1994 Framework Agreement concluded with the USA might lead to increased international trade. On the advice of his uncle, he started taking evening courses in economics, hoping this would prepare him for the opportunities ahead.
Having experienced the outside world, however, he soon concluded that the economics courses he was taking were of no practical value, imparting only dogmatic socialist theory, hopelessly inadequate for the openings he was preparing for in the real world. He quit and studied more English.
1997 was a devastating low point in his life. When he found himself unable to obtain antibiotics to save his daughter’s life, even in the exclusive shops frequented by the Pyongyang elite, he realized that his country was in deep trouble. With his wife increasingly absent from work due to illnesses that he suspected were the consequence of depression, he started to look around for other opportunities. Although he was a competent teacher, he was convinced that he had more to offer in service of his country.
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In early 1998, a recruiter from the Flood Damage Rehabilitation Committee (FDRC) visited his university. Attending a general faculty meeting, he learned that leader Kim Jong Il had appealed to the United Nations for temporary food aid because several years of natural disasters had devastated DPRK agriculture. The FDRC had been established by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to administer relations with UN relief agencies, non-governmental organizations and foreign bilateral donors. With the number of foreign aid workers now exceeding the number of interpreters available to the Foreign Ministry, professors with appropriate language skills could apply for sabbaticals to work with the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) and an assortment of European NGOs.
Not hesitating for a moment, Pak told recruiters that he was eager to hone his English skills. After easily passing the required language test, he was enrolled in a crash course on how to deal with foreigners: rules of engagement, security parameters, access requirements, reporting responsibilities, and above all, how to answer sensitive questions.
His first assignment was with an aid worker the authorities considered “non-problematic”. No sooner had he reached the WFP office than he found himself traveling in a brand new Toyota Land Cruiser, equipped with a short-wave radio capable of receiving BBC broadcast news. The driver headed out of the city and into a countryside he had never experienced before. The foreigner was friendly and verbose, delivering a steady stream of conversation about his own home country and the world outside the confines of the DPRK. For the next two hours, Pak thought he had gone to heaven.
The euphoria ended when they arrived at their destination. In the hill country of South Hwanghae province, they entered a small coal mining community, where the foreigner had arranged to visit a local nursery and some private homes.
At the nursery, the foreigner asked to see the “special care room”, where the most malnourished children were being spoon-fed a fortified porridge made of powdered corn-soya blend, donated by the WFP. The sight of the listless, emaciated children reminded Pak of his own deceased daughter. He could hardly concentrate as the foreigner gently pressed a finger into the skin of one child’s foot, then showed Pak the depression or “pit” that remained, explaining that this is an example of edema, caused by protein deficiency.
The home visits were no relief. In one apartment, they talked to the wife of a coal miner whose husband sat propped up in one corner, coal dust ground permanently into his skin. He was making wheezing noises, breathing with difficulty. The distraught woman explained that he was dismissed from the hospital because there was neither medicine nor food for him.
“Emphysema,” explained the foreigner to Pak. “It’s an occupational hazard. Coal dust in the lungs. You can get the same effect from smoking cigarettes.”
On the way back to Pyongyang, Pak was silent for a long time. The intensity of this experience caused him emotional turmoil. He had seen poverty as a child in the slums of Indonesia, but this was his own country. Sheltered in the protected environment of Pyongyang, he had always taken for granted that the glorious revolution had defeated poverty. He didn’t know on whom he should focus the embarrassment and anger he was feeling.
Pak was and still is a true believer in Kimilsungism. He considers the founder of the DPRK to be a god. He believes that the son of the founder, the “dear leader” Kim Jong Il, is the best and obvious person to succeed his father. These are articles of faith. His mind simply excludes the possibility that the leader or the system could be deficient. If his country experiences difficulties, the causes can only be insufficient commitment by lazy or disloyal fellow citizens, natural disasters, or outside interference. The latter had certainly been the case in Korea throughout history.
He remembered his instructions on how to deal with foreigners, and felt an urgent need to justify himself to the man sitting in the back seat of the vehicle.
“We are experiencing these difficulties because of several years of natural disasters,” he offered. There was no reply.
“Floods and droughts,” he added for effect. Still no reply.
His unspoken anger began to boil to the surface and came out in the words he had been taught to memorize:
“We would be able easily to solve all our problems if the Americans would not try to strangle us with their sanctions and military threats.”
He felt better having externalized his anger at a scapegoat acceptable to his faith, but in his heart he still bore a visceral awareness that for at least a decade, the system he still believed to be the best in the world had lost its shine.
“We haven’t come to your country to lay blame.” The foreigner finally spoke — so quietly that Pak turned around to read his lips. “We’re only here to help you solve your own problems.”
Perhaps because of the death of his daughter, perhaps because of his wife’s bouts of depression, Pak somehow felt personally responsible. More than before his visits with the foreigner, he became aware of his own privileged status. In his political education sessions on Saturday mornings, which now included other North Korean staff members of the foreign affairs community, he began to urge his compatriots to intensify their commitment to the “Second Chollima Movement”, a restoration campaign initiated by leader Kim Jong Il, which Pak interpreted as finding innovative problem-solving ideas.
Pak was thrilled when in 1998 the DPRK launched what he had no doubt was a satellite into orbit, but was dismayed at the negative international reaction, particularly from Japan, which after all had its own satellite programme. But he was equally pleased that his country declared a unilateral moratorium on further launches and missile tests in view of the fact that US President Bill Clinton had at last authorized a meaningful, top-level dialogue with the DPRK.
Although Pak himself had assisted in the 1998 WFP-UNICEF nutritional survey, he was never able to believe the results published in the West, which suggested that the DPRK was one of the top three countries worldwide with the highest level of malnutrition. He knew from personal experience that the situation of North Korean children was grave. But what could possibly be gained by shaming his country with unfair comparisons, as though they were in some sort of contest for the top spot on a scale of disasters? He understood and supported his superiors’ decision never again to permit foreigners to dictate and conduct national nutritional surveys.
— /// —
In Pak’s mind, history and mythology had the same unreal quality. The anti-Japanese revolutionary struggle, the founding of the DPRK, the patriotic war against American aggressors — these he knew from history books, not from personal experience. He always marveled at the depth of emotion when his parents would tell stories of the war.
He could better relate to the division of Korea, since he had several times been to Panmunjom, interpreting for visiting foreigners. He felt deeply the injustice of division, but standing at the dividing line that crossed the blue barracks, he harboured no personal hostility toward the South Korean soldiers staring at him through binoculars from the other side.
Divided Korea was a matter of fact — a sad fact, a tragic fact, but nevertheless an incontrovertible fact of life.
Korean reunification on the other hand was a matter of faith — an eschatological faith, something you live for every day of your life, even though it may not happen in your lifetime. “Korea is one,” so many posters reminded him again and again. To him this wasn’t just a slogan. It was an article of his creed. It never crossed his mind to doubt it.
And then, very suddenly, almost without warning, this faith in reunification was rewarded with a new fact: the inter-Korean summit of the year 2000.
This followed upon another minor disappointment. He had been working for a brief period with an NGO that employed very young, very inexperienced, and very idealistic aid workers. None of these European youths had ever been in Asia, let alone Korea. They knew nothing of Korean history, treated him with great suspicion, and made demands on him that he was unable to meet, no matter how hard he tried.
This group of foreign youths eventually decided that they could not continue to work in the DPRK without losing their integrity, and blamed their failure on “insufficient humanitarian space” in his country. Pak was hard pressed to understand what that actually meant. His superiors blamed the whole incident on Pak’s lack of experience, i.e., his inability to keep foreigners under his control.
He expected to be dismissed from his international duties and sent back to his teaching job at the university. What he didn’t know was that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was already preparing for the expected influx of foreign delegations following the summit, which would once again stretch their human resources — especially their pool of interpreters — to the limit. They reassigned Pak to the UNDP, which they considered a safer place for him.
With the 2000 Summit and the June 15 Joint Declaration, the universe seemed to have shifted. The future seemed to have come closer. Everyone was electrified by the enormity of this event. Coming home from the airport where he had joined the throngs welcoming South Korea’s President Kim Dae Jung, he heard his wife playing the electric keyboard that she had not touched since his daughter’s death. She told him she had watched the event on television and decided she wanted to have another child to experience the reunification of Korea.
— /// —
Their son was born nine months later. By then, George W. Bush had been elected president of the USA, and the positive developments in the dying days of the Clinton administration were being systematically reversed. The terror attacks on New York and Washington on 11 September 2001 only made matters worse. The “axis of evil” State of the Union speech in 2002 was the most galling. But more frightening was the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which Pak fully expected would be followed by invasions of the other two countries identified as members of this imaginary axis: Iran and his own homeland.
Prior to the announcement by his government of a series of economic adjustment measures on 1 July 2002, Pak got his wish to attend a UNDP course in market economics in Shanghai. This was an eye-opening experience, but not only in a positive sense. He did not enjoy the overcrowded streets, the excessive traffic, the air pollution, the beggars who accosted him on every street corner. Although his hosts were welcoming and polite, he felt the Chinese looked down on him as a relic of their own past. He began to resist the unspoken but implied pressures to conform to some “Chinese model” of development.
“Korea is not China,” he would repeat to himself. “We will manage our own development in our own way, by our own hands.” This was the way of “Juche”, the self-reliant idea introduced by his venerated leader and eternal president Kim Il Sung.
Pak’s studies in Shanghai opened his eyes to both the potentials and dangers of economic openings. He became aware of the DPRK’s economic vulnerabilities, and began to appreciate the motivation of his country’s leader Kim Jong Il when he stressed “military first” policies, even though Pak began to wonder if the military understood the limitations of their own role.
Some of his close friends took the plunge and started their own businesses by trading with China and selling their wares in the open markets that were springing up in various parts of Pyongyang and other cities. Some of them did very well. Waving wads of dollar bills in front of his face, they enticed him to join their example.
But Pak was more cautious. Something bothered him about the increasing monetization of his society. Accumulating personal wealth seemed to become a higher goal among some of his contemporaries than the overarching goal of helping his country to survive. He believed in going slow, in order to avoid the inevitable mistakes the budding entrepreneurs would make, not to mention the reversals of policy that were part and parcel of the economic trial and error he was witnessing. His father once told him that it is good to learn from your mistakes, but it is better to learn from other people’s mistakes.
Pak wanted to know more, in order to be prepared to act more intelligently. He read voraciously. He devoured UNDP literature available at the office. He took home foreign newspapers, magazines, journals, CDs and DVDs. He studied the transitions in Vietnam and Cambodia. He followed events in the former Soviet republics. He came to realize that there is not only one road to development. It gave him some hope that there could well be a Korean way, not yet tried, and perhaps better than the others, since Koreans could learn from the mistakes of all the others.
He watched helplessly as his country lurched from hope to despair and back to hope in a seemingly endless cycle, like a person with a bipolar disorder. In September, Prime Minister Koizumi of Japan signs the Pyongyang Declaration, with promises of establishing diplomatic relations. In October, US Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly accuses the DPRK of running a secret uranium enrichment programme. In November, South Korea concludes an agreement to establish the Kaesong Industrial Park across the DMZ in North Korea. In December, the USA announces it will cease its contractually obligated delivery of heavy fuel oil to the DPRK. In 2003, matters just seemed to go from bad to worse.
Pak supported his country’s decision to arm itself with nuclear weapons, because he was convinced that the USA would not hesitate to do to the DPRK what it had done to Iraq. On the other hand, Pak also realized that military power alone would not solve his country’s problems. His readings had convinced him that as necessary as military preparation was as a deterrent to defend his country, there had to be parallel efforts in other fields. What is needed above all — and this he knew from personal experience — is a much higher level of education for his people, more suited to modern times.
Pak spent a year posted at the DPRK Mission to the United Nations in Geneva and experienced first-hand the humiliation of condemnation by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. He felt like the whole world was conspiring to prevent the very changes the international community claimed it wanted in the DPRK. How could they not see that they were pushing his country into a defensive posture that could only serve to strengthen the frightened Old Guard among his compatriots — exactly those people who were intent on turning back the hands of time?
To his own surprise, he was given the chance to accompany a DPRK delegation to one of the sessions of the Six-Party Talks in the summer of 2005. His task was to help minor officials communicate in one-on-one side meetings at the talks. He experienced some pride in the fact that the DPRK was being courted by five of the world’s most powerful nations.
But the talks themselves filled him with more anger. Although reading Western newspapers had given him some hope that genuine negotiations could break the security impasse and set his country back on the road to development, what was in fact on offer was his country’s capitulation. He became convinced that the Six-Party Talks were merely a forum for bribery and threats, or what the foreigners like to call “carrots and sticks.”
— /// —
Pak supported the decision — a subject of internal debates since 2002 — to terminate the receipt of food aid at the end of 2005. Already in the early days working with the WFP, he learned from his foreign colleagues that food aid always creates dependencies, and is therefore incompatible with Juche. At the UNDP he learned that whereas food aid is useful only as a short-term stopgap in a disaster area, development is an ongoing process that all countries are involved in. Unlike chronic food shortages, which point to policy deficiencies, development is something both normal and honourable, as long as it is self-guided, and not simply imposed from the outside.
He was less content about the decision to terminate the presence of NGOs. Although his own experience with NGOs was not a happy one, he did acknowledge that a number of them imparted useful expertise and novel ideas. Besides, the exit of food aid agencies and NGOs would limit opportunities for travel within his own country — something he saw as a serendipitous fringe benefit that had altered his own perceptions, and could do so for other young compatriots.
Even this small sacrifice he believed to be worthwhile if there were a genuine commitment to development. And this was indeed the policy his government announced to the United Nations. The key to Korea’s future — of this Pak Kim Li is convinced — lies in obtaining all the knowledge the world has to offer, without capitulating to foreign manipulation, without accepting foreign answers to problems only Koreans themselves could understand.
He was happy when early in 2006 he became involved in the drafting of the UNDP’s next comprehensive country programme, a three-year project design that leaned heavily in the direction of “capacity building”, a term he now understood to be synonymous with education.
But would the international community respond with the requisite financing? None of his international colleagues held out much hope. “Not until the nuclear issue is resolved,” they would repeat endlessly. His readings regarding international aid to other parts of Asia, Africa and the Middle East had persuaded him that you could always get resources when children are already dying of starvation. But it appeared far more difficult to finance the development needed to prevent starvation.
— /// —
Since he had never served in the military, Pak understands little of the military mind. He trusts that those in charge know what they are doing, although he fervently wishes there were another way. He is tired of the constant state of mobilization and the endless militaristic language that is broadcast via radio, television, newspapers and public announcements.
When in the summer of 2004 both Koreas agreed to dismantle loudspeakers, signboards and other propaganda tools directed at each other across the DMZ, it was as though a heavy burden had been lifted off his shoulders. It provided a measure of hope, just like the inter-Korean summit of 2000 had done.
And it is hope he misses in the current situation. When he was still alive, leader Kim Il Sung also emphasized the importance of a strong army. But at the same time, he offered the people hope in a bright future. As much as Pak believes the “military first policy” to be correct for this time and place, it has dawned on him that military power may well offer security, but it cannot offer hope. And hope is what will motivate his people toward development. What is the hope that he can pass on to his son?
It was not difficult for him to predict how events would unfold in late Spring 2006. After disrupting his country’s foreign trade with banking sanctions, the USA turned its attention to the quagmire in the Middle East. Stung by the threat these banking actions represented for China’s own trade, Beijing increasingly treated the DPRK with annoyance and impatience, while it too refocused attention to geopolitical considerations, joining with Russia to gain influence in the oil-rich Middle East. Japan seized the opportunity to ingratiate itself to the USA by becoming its blunt instrument, using the abductee issue to please its domestic electorate, while intensifying international threat perceptions of the DPRK. Meanwhile, the conciliatory Roh Moo Hyun government of South Korea was losing out to a more aggressive, US-friendly opposition.
Clearly something was needed to shake up these negative developments for the DPRK. In its opaque wisdom, the DPRK fell back on the tried and true strategy of brinkmanship and rolled its latest long-range missile, the Taepodong II, onto the launching pad.
When the USA reacted stridently with threats of dire consequences, Pak knew that it would be impossible for the DPRK military to back down. He had his personal opinion about what his country should do, but he kept these to himself. He suspected that in reality, the USA actually wanted the DPRK to fire the rocket. It would play into the hands of American and Japanese plans for a regional missile defense system. And because China wants desperately to avoid this development, they would need to show that they are capable of regional threat limitation, and that means demonstrating their ability to control the DPRK.
Once again, concludes Pak, as so often throughout our history, the regional powers are using Korea as a pawn for their own games. Why are we helping them play these games? What can we possibly gain?
Pak quickly suppresses these thoughts. These are issues for greater minds to deal with. And greater minds — this he refuses to doubt — are directing the destiny of his people. He wishes fervently that he could understand the logic that he seems to be missing. Then he files these concerns in a hidden compartment of his mind, while he concentrates on the small part of the puzzle that he does understand.
For his son’s 5th birthday, Pak bought a wristwatch at the Tong-il market in Pyongyang.
“You see this pointer moving around very quickly?” he asked his son. “That is you. It counts the seconds, because to you, every second in life counts.”
“This other, fatter pointer,” he continued, indicating the minute hand, “that’s your family — your parents, your grandparents, your uncles and aunts, your teachers, your neighbours. This hand moves much more slowly. By the time you have gone all the way around the circle, your family has moved only from one mark to the next.
“This shorter pointer here, the hour hand, is the slowest. But it is the most important of the three. This is your country. If you pay too close attention, you won’t see it moving at all. The best way is to just go about your business. Keep moving at your own pace. Don’t wait for the minute hand or the hour hand to catch up. And when you’ve almost forgotten where it was last time you looked, look again, and you’ll see it moved while you weren’t watching.”
Lifting his son onto his lap, Pak Kim Li whispered into his ear: “Let me tell you the most important secret about this watch: If the second hand stops moving, the hour hand will stop moving as well. If you want to serve your country, you must be sure never to stand still.”
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